Chapter 17 – Armageddon in Space by Edmond Hamilton
2233655Cosmos — Chapter 17 – Armageddon in SpaceEdmond Hamilton

Ferdinand Stone sprang forward quickly as he and Alan Martin, Flight Director of the Earth Fleet, saw in the visiplate of their flagship, the Washington, the strange little approaching ship.

“Better order our beamers to stand ready to blast that craft,” Stone advised. “It may be another trick of the robots.”

“No, wait,” Alan Martin said, peering keenly into the instrument. “I’ve seen that ship before.”

“It’s Dos-Tev’s little ship!” he exclaimed a moment later. “I saw it when we attended the Copernicus conference.”

He turned swiftly to Captain Malcolm. “Something’s wrong. We’ve got to contact that craft at once.”

The grizzled veteran instantly barked orders into the communication-phones and the great Washington rapidly changed its course and speed in space to allow the little craft to come alongside.

Ferdinand Stone, meanwhile, had been watching the craft’s progress in the visiplate, and now breathed an exclamation of wonder.

“Great heavens, they’re using at least six gravities deceleration! They must all be dead long ago from the terrific effects.”

Within a few minutes the little cigar-shaped ship of Dos-Tev and the huge dirigible-like bulk of the Washington were driving side by side in space. Attractive beams stabbed out from the flagship’s side and drew the strange little craft quickly to it.

Down in the airlocks of the boat-deck, Marin and Ferdinand Stone and Captain Malcolm waited tensely as the crew of the flagship sought to enter the little craft which was now attached hermetically to the great ship.

A sweating junior officer emerged from the knot of men and saluted to Alan Martin. “We can’t open its space-door from outside, sir. And they must all be dead inside, for no one has tried to open it from within.”

“It’s opening now!” came a sharp cry from one of the men at that moment.

Martin and the others sprang forward. The round door of the little ship was turning, with infinite slowness. Inch by inch its rim went round, protruding further out each turn.

Then suddenly the screwing stopped, and the door was slowly swung open on its hinges, by a shaking hand. The watching earthmen were as tho frozen as they saw a quivering, swaying shape rise painfully inside the door, and crawl out into the airlock.

His body racked, crushed and broken by the terrific effect of the unusual deceleration, Dos-Tev’s face was a mask of appalling agony thru which his eyes glittered with unearthly, superhuman determination.

Not one of the earthmen could have spoken in that moment had their lives depended on it. Then Dos-Tev’s voice sounded.

A high, shrill, pain-taut rasp, his words came as tho by more than human effort, his eye’s holding Alan Martin’s.

“Ay-Artz – nearing edge of solar system now! Will come in past Pluto—”

The awful rasp faltered, as the racked body swayed, then more words came: “Ay-Artz has – has mightier weapons – than you think. Destroy him utterly, or he will – he will destroy your system.”

Then into the agonized voice of Dos-Tev came a strange change. Pride and triumph flamed in it, beating back the pain.

Slowly, stiffly, incredibly, that crushed body raised itself erect before the eyes of the watchers. For a breathless moment Dos-Tev stood at full height.

His eyes distended, his face flaming, he shook his clenched fist out toward the enemy he could not see.

“Do you hear me, Ay-Atrz? Dos-Tev still rules!”

He crashed to the floor like a fallen tree a moment later, and lay still.

Released from the spell that had bound them, Martin and the others sprang forward.

“Dead!” exclaimed Ferdinand Stone. “God in heaven, the man must have been all will to live like that long enough to give us his word.”

“The others in the craft are both dead, sir,” reported a white-faced officer to Martin.

Martin jumped to his feet from where he had been stooping over the dead form.

“Dos-Tev has done us his last and greatest service,” he said. “Now we of the solar system must fight without aid of anyone.”

“Ay-Artz is at this moment nearing the system, and will have entered it before we can meet him. The battle we’ve been expecting these many months is on us.”

His voice blared to Captain Malcolm. “Order a course laid for Pluto. Our fleet is to head there at the utmost speed that we can stand and live!”

Within minutes the hundred great battleships of the Earth Fleet, in open space formation of three columns, were blasting outward on the course broadcast by the computers.

In the bridge room of the flagship, Alan Martin hurried to the visiphone, to call the commanders of the five other fleets of the solar system forces.

His first call was to Venus, and in a few moment the handsome face and steel blue eyes of Zinlo, Torrogo of Olba and commander of the Venusian fleet, looked out of the visiplate at him.

“Martin speaking,” rapped the Flight Director. “The force of Ay-Artz is nearing the system, and all the solar system forces are to rendezvous near Neptune.”

He gave the coordinates of the appointed rendezvous. “You will need to depart instantly. Your ships are ready?”

The steel blue eyes flashed hard light as Zinlo gripped the hilt of his scarbo.

“By Thorth, they’re coming at last?” he cried. “Good! The ships of Venus sail in ten minutes!”

The hairy, unhuman face of Fax Gatola of Mars was next to confront Martin.

When Martin gave him the word, the Martian’s little oval eyes too gleamed with the light of battle.

“We will be there before you of Earth,” he promised. “My warriors have been lusting for this fight.”

The Flight Director’s next call was to Callisto, and there the leonine head of Parlece was flung back abruptly as he heard the call.

“My children and their ships will follow me to the rendezvous instantly!”

“So far, so good,” muttered Martin, his keen face taut. “Fifty ships from each of those three planets and our own hundred make two hundred and fifty we’re sure of.

“But what’s the matter?” he exclaimed a moment later as he waited for the visiphone. “Why haven’t they given me a connection with the Saturnians?”

The voice of the Washington’s communications officer intruded quickly.

“The Saturnian fleet is not on Saturn, sir! We called then there but they only know the fleet encountered trouble out in space, and stopped communicating suddenly.”

Alan Martin turned to Ferdinand Stone, his eyes suddenly foreboding.

“Something’s wrong there, then! What could have happened to the Saturnians?”

Stone shook his gray head. “They may have been sent off on a wrong course as we were, and destroyed.”

Martin’s jaw set. “I’ll call up Neptune and warn it’s fleet before we try to trace the Saturnians.”

But that attempt too proved fruitless. Neptune could report only that its fleet, like the Saturnian one, had left the planet, reported danger, and then suddenly stopped communicating.

Alan Martin strode to and fro in the bridge-room nervously. Stone watched him calmly, seemingly unperturbed.

Martin turned suddenly. “We can’t afford to lose those two forces!” he exclaimed. “An essential part of our fleet!”

At that moment came the excited voice of the communications officer.

“Call coming from someone off Jupiter, sir! It seems to be a Saturnian.”

“Put him on, quick,” Martin directed.

In a moment the grotesque shape of a Saturnian appeared in the visiplate, the jell of his weird body flaming green with excitement.

“I am Kama-Loo, now commanding the Saturnian fleet,” he reported. “Pross Mere-Mer is dead, and we Saturnians have just saved the Neptunian contingent from falling into the red spot on Jupiter.”

Quickly he related what had happened. And when he heard Martin’s quick words, his jell went black with emotion.

“The enemy is that close? But I must tell Steepa, the Neptunian leader.”

“Never mind, I’ll tell him myself,” Martin answered.

In a moment the gaseous form of the Neptunian replaced the Saturnian in the visiplate.

“Ay-Artz and his twenty ships must be very close now to the edge of the system,” Martin said rapidly. “See if you can project a visibeam that will disclose him – comb the whole quadrant outside Pluto.”

“Very well, we’ll try it,” Steepa answered, and clicked off the screen for the time being.

Martin waited nervously. Ten minutes later the Neptunian re-appeared.

“We have located the enemy, but cannot see him. He has force-screens out that make his position just a blank in space as far as our visibeams are concerned.”

“All right, follow the position of that blank,” Martin ordered. “Give me the coordinates of his present position, then wait with the Saturnians at the rendezvous until we all arrive.”

When the Neptunian had complied, and vanished, Martin studied the coordinates given for a few moments. Then he turned to Ferdinand Stone, his face drawn with anxiety.

“Ay-Artz is closer that I imagined! We’ll barely have time to rendezvous off Neptune before he’ll be coming in past Pluto.”

His eyes narrowed. “And when we do meet him, what then? Somehow I have an awful feeling that we are simply struggling against the inevitable, that he will brush us aside like flies.”

Ferdinand Stone shrugged. “It may very well be that he will. But we’ll make him aware that flies can sting before he accomplishes it.

“Brace up, boy,” he added, putting his hand on Martin’s shoulder. “You are feeling the responsibility of the coming battle, of this leadership of yours in it, and that makes you gloomy.

“After all, even if Ay-Artz’s ships are super-powerful, there are only twenty of them. And we have two hundred and fifty.”

“Yes, I know,” Martin said broodingly, “but I can’t forget Dos-Tev’s dying words. ‘Ay-Artz has mightier weapons than you think’.”

“If the fight were only on even terms, I’d not be so afraid, for the crews of our two hundred and fifty ships are fighters all and will fight like demons for their solar system. But if the enemy unlooses wholly new forces on us—”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Ferdinand Stone said calmly. “Meanwhile, we’re certainly making time. We’ll soon be crossing the orbit of Venus at this rate.”

With the great Washington in the van, the three columns of the Earth Fleet were hurling themselves away from the sun at the highest possible velocity. Far ahead of them in the black of space burned the tiny green speck of Neptune, their present goal.

On and on thru the spaces of the solar system raced the armada of Earth. And far ahead of them, they knew, the fleets of Venus and Mars and Callisto were hurtling out toward the rendezvous also. Two hundred and fifty mighty battleships of space, speeding out to join the others for the great battle that was to decide the fate of the system.

They roared past the orbit of Venus, and soon past the orbit of Earth, too. Crushed by the terrific speed they were maintaining, drawing each breath in pain, still the men and officers of the Earth Fleet could not without emotion watch the gray old sphere of earth and its shining little moon drop behind. Every heart hardened in resolve to save that world and the others from the alien invader.

As they crossed Mars’ orbit, and started the ticklish passage of the dangerous asteroidal zone, Alan Martin kept in constant visiphone contact with the fleets ahead. Already the Callistans had come up to the rendezvous where the Saturnians and Neptunians waited, he learned. And the Neptunians reported Ay-Artz’s forces now decelerating speed as they approached Pluto.

Martin could not rid himself of the feeling of impending disaster. As Ferdinand Stone had said, he felt the awful weight of such responsibility as had never before rested on any being in the solar system. For on Martin, Flight Director of the solar system forces, rested the destiny of the system itself.

All that had been accomplished so far, the epic flight of Dos-Tev to bring warning to the system, the herculean preparations that had been made on Mars and Callisto and Venus and Saturn and Neptune, the awful struggle against the robots of Earth and against that weird, ghastly thing that had laired inside the moon – all this was lost if he now mishandled the forces in the coming battle.

Soon the Earth Fleet was racing close past Saturn, the colossal ringed planet slowly dropping behind on their left.

Beyond in the black gloom glittered the green-gleaming little globes of Uranus and Neptune, and farther beyond, and on a different plane, the dim, dark spot of Pluto, their revolutions having brought the four outer planets in the same quarter.

Martin, gazing ahead with Ferdinand Stone, turned as the face of Fax Gatola appeared in the visiplate.

“Martian Fleet reports arrival at the rendezvous,” the Martian told him. “The Callistans have arrived also.”

“Good! Lay there in space formation until the Venusians and our own contingent join up with you,” Alan Martin ordered.

He called the Neptunian leader again. “The position of Ay-Artz’s forces now?”

“They will be coming in past Pluto by the time you reach the rendezvous,” Steepa replied.

“Then we’ll meet then between Neptune and Pluto,” Martin said. “Keep your visibeams on them constantly.”

Moon-encircled Uranus dropped behind them now. And as they drew nearer the green sphere of Neptune, the Earth Fleet began to decelerate the terrific speed that had brought them across the system.

By the time they were close to Neptune, its emerald disc filling half the heavens, the Venusians had joined the assembled forces. Slower moved the Earth Fleet, until ahead of it appeared a flat swarm of metallic object, in five rough divisions. The five fleets, awaiting the sister-fleet from Earth.

The Earth Fleet drove over them in space, slowed until it floated without motion in respect to the others.

Steepa reported instantly by visiphone, “The enemy has passed Pluto. And now they’re open to our visibeams.”

“That’s right, Martin!” exclaimed Ferdinand Stone. “Look here!”

In the plate connected to their projected visibeams, could be seen twenty colossal, silvery objects of cylindrical shape rushing thru space.

These cylinder ships of Ay-Artz, Martin saw at once, were so huge as to make his own battleships seem puny. They were advancing in a compact triangular group, passing dark, icy Pluto.

“They’ve cut off their visibeam screens, they’re letting us see them purposely,” Martin muttered. “Does that mean they want us to find them and fight them?

“What does Ay-Artz have up his sleeve, anyway? He must be able to see that, big as his ships are, our forces are stronger.”

He shook loose from that clinging foreboding, and rapidly gave order for disposition of his forces.

“We will advance to meet the enemy in formation of five columns,” he snapped. “Assume that formation, a thousand-mile interval between ships.”

Quickly the dirigible-like battleships ranked up as he ordered, the Earth Fleet forming two columns, the other fleets each one column.

They waited for the order. And there came to them again Martin’s voice, deep, a little tremor in it.

“You all know what depends on this fight. I do not have to exhort you to fight to the last of your strength.

“But I do wish to emphasize that my orders must be obeyed instantly as received. Only by doing so can we smash Ay-Artz.”

Then, with a long breath, Alan Martin spoke the single word, “Advance!”

Propulsion tubes blasted white atomic fire as two hundred and fifty great battleships of space leaped forward thru the void as one.

In their formation of five columns they roared toward the oncoming enemy. Above the formation of columns flew the flagship, the Washington, from which Alan Martin peered tautly ahead, Captain Malcolm and Ferdinand Stone tense by his side.

The visibeams showed the fleet of Ay-Artz much closer. When a brief time, the twenty monster ships would be in sight to the unaided eye.

Martin snapped, “Scout squadrons ahead!”

Out from the head of each of the five columns dashed the assigned Scout squadrons, fifty of the swiftest ships.

They flashed ahead of the main fleet, spread out in a broad fan before it, with flankers out on either side and above and below.

That Ay-Artz was using his own visibeams was instantly made apparent by the spectacle of three of his own mighty ships dashing out ahead of the others.

“Use your torpedoes on those three ships as soon as you come within range,” Martin ordered his scouts. “If they have no effect, engage directly with beams but break off at once when I order.”

To Ferdinand Stone he added swiftly, “If we press those three ships hard enough, it may make Ay-Artz show his hand.”

A moment later came report from the scouts, “We are in range, sir, but torpedoes prove ineffective. We are about to engage with beams.”

“He’d naturally have screens out to ward off torpedoes,” Ferdinand Stone commented. “We’ll see what beams can do.”

“There they go now – they’re fighting!” cried Captain Malcolm, pointing thru the bridge-room windows.

Far ahead in the black vault, little spurts and flickers of light were stabbing and dying all along a broad horizontal line.

They whirled to the visiplate, and on it the distant battle leaped clear and close to their eyes.

The fifty scouts had dashed forward upon the three monster cylinders of Ay-Artz’s van, and were savagely attacking them with every possible beam.

Like sharks hanging upon three great whales, the scouts pressed as close to the cylinders as their force-screens would permit, pouring terrific concentrated forces upon them in an effort to smash thru their protection.

The ships of Ay-Artz answered! Long beams and broad fans of force slashed and sliced the attacking ships. Seven or eight of the scouts had already perished, but had not yet managed to break down the protective screens of the cylinders.

But now the seventeen other monster cylinders raced forward as tho to succor their hard-pressed comrades.

Instantly Martin gave order for the scouts to give over the attack.

“Rejoin main body at once!” he ordered.

As the scouts raced back, Martin turned a moment to his companions.

“In a few minutes our main body will meet the enemy,” he said. “I am going to have half our forces hold back until we have engaged with the rest.”

“Bad strategy to divide our forces now, sir!” warned grizzled Captain Malcolm.

“I still think Ay-Artz is trying to trick us,” Martin rejoined. “I daren’t risk all our ships until we know for sure.

“He’s used nothing new so far but that may only be to lure our main body within reach. If we could only find out whether he had any unknown weapons!”

“We can try to get into one of his ships with a visibeam,” Ferdinand Stone suggested swiftly. “If we put enough power behind it, we might be able to drive it thru his screens.”

“All right, try it but be quick!” Martin urged. “In a few minutes we’ll be meeting them.”

All the power of the Washington’s mighty generators was momentarily turned into a visibeam that stabbed toward the foremost of the approaching cylinders.

But tho the terrific power of the beam drove it thru the cylinder’s protective screens, it failed to penetrate the outer, silver-like skin of the cylinder itself.

“No use, he’s got a skin on his ships absolutely proof to any visibeam we can project!” Stone exclaimed.

“Then I’ve got to follow my plan of dividing forces,” Martin said.

He gave his orders rapidly. “Columns divide in half, two columns of twenty five for each fleet, four columns for Earth fleet. Five columns stay back as reserves. Attacking division will form up in ten parallel columns.”

In response, the hundred and twenty-five designated ships dashed forward ahead of the others, forming as ordered.

They raced forward to come to grips with the enemy, and Martin saw the twenty huge ships expand into a broad line to meet them.

His own ship, the Washington, led the Earth forces of his right wing. Alan Martin set his teeth as he saw the onrushing cylinders of Ay-Artz take form in the black gloom ahead.

The two armadas met. Immediately there was fighting all along their line of contact, the smaller ships of the solar system curving around the monster cylinders and loosing their beams and torpedoes, while the cylinders replied in kind.

The blackness of space was slashed by the vicious flare of the deadly beams, striving to pierce the defensive screens, and by the flashing explosions of torpedoes.

Captain Malcolm, commanding the Washington in the battle, had swooped with a half-dozen other Earth battleships upon the cylinder at the end of the enemy line. He shouted orders for his beamers to concentrate their rays upon one portion of the cylinder’s screens, in an endeavor to break thru them.

Alan Martin and Ferdinand Stone, gripping the edge of the visiphone plate as the Washington pressed forward, saw the huge cylinder looming only dimly thru the blinding dance and flare of the forces loosed upon it. The flagship reeled and quivered constantly from the shuddering recoil of its auxiliary guns.

The cylinder replied viciously to the attack, its beams cutting out and searching for its attackers. One of the Earth ships near the flagship, its defensive screens faltering for a moment, was smashed into metallic rags by those beams instantly.

In the flaring hell of this hot struggle at the end of the line, Martin did not lose touch with his forces as a whole. His visiplate showed him the battle all along the line.

Hard fighting had developed on the left wing, and Fax Gatola’s Martians were being roughly handled by three or four of the monster craft there. The Martians had already lost a dozen ships but were hanging grimly on, pounding their huge antagonists with every force they could release.

Martin snapped an order and the Callistans extended their line a little to the left, relieving the Martians of the attack of one of the cylinders they faced. But Parcele’s forces, in turn, began to feel the brunt of Ay-Artz’s attack.

“They’ve not sprung any surprises on us, Martin,” exclaimed Ferdinand Stone. “If we don’t bring up the rest of our forces now, we might as well quit.”

Alan Martin nodded. “If Ay-Artz had anything up his sleeve, he’d surely have revealed if by now.”

Martin now proceeded to unloose his forces in his main attack.

He ordered the waiting reserves to come up and fall with him on the enemy’s left wing.

The Martians and Callistans were to continue the unequal battle along the rest of the line while Martin attempted to crush the end of Ay-Artz’s line by a sudden onslaught of immense forces.

The waiting reserves had been chafing to join the battle, and now dashed forward at top speed.

Before the enemy was aware of the maneuver, the two hundred great ships bore down upon the left wing thru the blinding haze of battle, and then the system’s forces were falling upon the four cylinders at that wing.

Space almost instantly seemed choked with attacking ships around the big cylinders. Some seventy or eighty ships concentrated on each of the two end cylinders, and as their beams drove at the two craft, it was target for unthinkable torrents of vibratory force.

No defensive screens could withstand such forces, and the screens of the cylinders gave way. With the swiftness of light, there flashed thru a storm of beams and torpedoes that smashed, rended, crumpled up and exploded the cylinders into tiny fragments.

“Two gone!” Captain Malcolm cried. “By heaven, we’re going to beat them!”

“Concentrate attack on the next two cylinders!” Alan Martin cried into the visiphone to the exultant forces.

Then suddenly he cried, “Wait! Wait—”

For with the unexpected destruction of two of his cylinders, Ay Artz had finally unmasked his real attack.

Out from every one of his cylinders there stole pale, ghostly beams so dim as to be hardly visible.

The ghostly fingers of light passed thru the defensive screens of the solar system’s forces as tho they did not exist, and touched a score of ships.

Instantly those ships puffed into blinding flares of light – and vanished. And were other ships were close to them, they too were caught by the flare, and puffed out in dazzling flashes.

“It’s Ay-Artz’s real weapon!” Martin yelled. “Disengage battle and retreat at once!”

Puff! Puff! – blinding flares now were leaping and dancing destroyingly along the solar system’s line as the ghostly fingers of death reached and touched more and more ships.

Zinlo’s Venusians were all but annihilated, thirty ships flashing into nothingness in a heartbeat. A quarter of the rest of the fleet were annihilated, before they could obey Martin’s frantic order to break off the fight.

They zoomed up in space at a dizzy angle, Saturnians, Neptunians, Earth ships and others mixed together in the mad recoil from the death being loosed upon them.

The cylinders made no attempt to follow. And high overhead, as Alan Martin reformed his shattered forces, he found that two fifths of his entire armada had been wiped from existence.

“Great heavens, what was that!” cried Captain Malcolm. “It was like no beam ever heard of – simply whiffed ships out of existence in a flash.”

“I knew Ay-Artz was trying to trap us!” Martin cried. “Remember Dos-Tev’s dying words.”

Ferdinand Stone said excitedly, “Martin, that ghostly beam he uses must be one that transmutes the atoms of whatever matter it touches into pure force. You know, an atom is simply confined force and that pale beam releases it.

“And when the atoms touched by the beam explode into force, they touch off the atoms next to them, and so on until all the atoms on that place of matter are touched off. Just as a whole magazine will go when one bag of powder is fired.”

“Even ships that weren’t touched by the beam flared and vanished when the flare of other ships struck them!” the captain exclaimed, and Stone nodded.

“Each ship, melting suddenly into force, flares out for a great area, and touches off anything the flare touches.”

“However it works, it’s been fatal to us,” Martin told them. “Look, they’re simply disregarding us now.”

For there far below them in the void, Ay-Artz’s eighteen monster cylinders had again resumed formation and now were calmly moving onward thru space.

They were moving straight toward the great green disk of Neptune, which filled a whole quarter of space.

From the visiphone came the suddenly agonized cry of Steepa, the Neptunian leader. “They’re going to land on Neptune, make it their base here! They’ll ravage my world!

“We’ve got to stop them, sir! We can’t let them destroy my people!”

Alan Martin looked helplessly at the others. “The Neptunian’s right. We’ve got to prevent that at all costs.”

“But against those deadly dematerializing beams we’ve not a chance in the world,” Ferdinand Stone protested.

“Don’t I know that?” said Martin bitterly. “But we’ll fight Ay-Artz while we’ve got a ship left.”

“Form up in four columns!” his voice flared at the visiphone. “The four divisions will then approach Ay-Artz’s force from different quadrants simultaneously.

“That will make it a little harder for him to use the dematerializing beams on us,” he said to Stone. “And we may be able to smash more of his cylinders this time.”

The four columns separated, the Earth Fleet in one, and the decimated Martians and Callistans, with the few battered Venusian ships left, in the other three divisions.

Martin’s Earth division retained its position above the enemy until the other three columns had sped to different quadrants. Then when all were ready, he gave the order and they dashed again upon the enemy.

Down like swooping falcons of the void swept the Earth ships toward the cylinders, while from three other directions the three other forces of attackers came in.

Ay-Artz was ready for them. As they charged, his cylinders swiftly assumed a square formation, the four sides of the square facing the four attacks.

Again beams and torpedoes choked the void as the attackers dashed upon the invaders. But even before they came within range – Puff! Puff! the solar system ships were flashing and going as Ay-Artz’s pale death fingers searched among them.

Still the attackers surged bravely forward, hoping to get close enough to concentrate attack on some cylinder and smash its screens. But the death fingers flashed them into nothingness in increasing numbers as they came on.

Less than sixty ships were now left of the whole solar system fleet. Alan Martin saw the futility of continuing this sacrifice, and gave the order to retreat again. His sixty ships gathered together, the battered, scorched remnants of the proud armada of so short a time before.

“We’ve shot our bolt!” Captain Malcolm said decisively. “With those deadly dematerializing beams, that can do just what they want to do.”

“If we only could have beams like those to meet them with!” cried Alan Martin. “Stone, isn’t there any chance of duplicating those beams?”

Ferdinand Stone shook his head. “Not unless we got a look at the mechanisms that produce them. Then I might be able to duplicate them. But that’s out of the question – our visibeams can’t penetrate the skin of those cylinders, as we found out.”

“Look, Ay-Artz is landing on Nepture!” cried Captain Malcolm.

In the visiplates they saw that the invader, leaving four cylinders out in space as guards, was swinging in with his other fourteen cylinders thru the atmosphere of the great green planet.

The horror that followed was enacted before their stricken eyes in brief moments. Ay-Artz’s cylinders sped around the surface of Neptune and as they sped, rained destruction on its people.

Using their ordinary vibratory beams, the cylinders smashed the glassite cities of the Neptunians into glittering fragments, crushed their swarming inhabitants beneath the debris, even tore thru the surrounding jungles great lanes of destruction.

Then the cylinders, having completed their slaughter of the Neptunians, settled down in a spot on the equator of the planet, apparently chosen as a base for the further conquest of the solar system.

From the visiphone came the agonize voice of Steepa.

“My people – my cities! Wiped out of existence forever!”

“Unless I’m mistaken, they’re only the first,” Ferdinand Stone said grimly. “Saturn will probably be visited next by the invaders, when they have established themselves strongly on Neptune.”

“No!” Martin cried. “By heaven, we’ve still got a chance if we can find out how those dematerializing beams are produced.

“Listen, this is what we’ll try. We’ll attack one of those four guarding cylinders out in space. Our ships, except this flagship, will endeavor to smash that cylinder’s screens and smash its outer skin.

“If they succeed in doing that, our flagship, lying off from the battle, will instantly drive a visibeam into the shattered cylinder and get a look at the apparatus that produced the dematerializing beams. Then Doctor Stone may be able to duplicate the apparatus.”

“It’s a long chance,” Stone muttered. “You’re giving me a big order, even if we do get a visibeam inside.”

“It’s the one chance left and we’ve got to take it,” Martin replied. “Everybody willing?”

“Yes, anything to keep the cursed invaders from spreading further!” came the answer.

“Very well, attack that nearest cylinder at once,” Martin ordered. “Remember, try above all to smash thru the outer skin of the cylinder.”

The fifty odd ships dashed forward instantly, heading toward the nearest of the four cylinders which cruised out in space around Neptune.

In mad, headlong attack they dashed at that cylinder, which back in space lay the Washington, Martin and Ferdinand Stone standing ready at the visiplates, the communications men below taut to hurl their strongest visibeam at the cylinder.

When the ships neared the cylinder, its ghostly fingers reached out and blinding flares edged one another in space as attacking ships went to death. But more than forth remained and these, falling upon the cylinder, smashed loose with every beam and force they possessed at its defensive screens.

The screens could not stand the terrific fury of this concentrated attack, and gave way. In thru them tore the bolts of force from the attackers, ripping along the side of the silvery cylinder and slicing it cleanly away.

Instantly the visibeam from the Washington played over the interior of the shattered cylinder. Ferdinand Stone ordered it concentrated on upon a huge cylindrical mechanism that was apparently the generator of the fearful dematerializing beams.

The visibeam, driving into the interior of the huge mechanism, revealed its every detail to Stone’s piercing eyes. Meanwhile Alan Martin ordered the forty remaining ships to return, as the three other cylinders guarding Neptune were quickly up.

When the cylinders came up, they immediately turned a pale beam upon their shattered comrade. It vanished in a flash of light.

Ferdinand Stone cried, “They did that because they must have known we’d have a visibeam on the interior.”

“Did you see enough?” Alan Martin cried. “Could you build a generator of the dematerializing beams, like that one?”

“I’m pretty sure I could,” Stone replied. “The generator and its projector, it was evident were not made of matter at all, since the beam generated would have destroyed them, but of captive forces resembling matter to the eye.

“I could do it, but what would be the use? With one generator, what chance would we have against those seventeen huge cylinders and their equipment?”

“We’ll have a chance, all right, if we can just build the one generator,” Martin assured him. “But we must be quick.”

A few hours later, the remnants of the solar system fleet having lain in space that time at the same position, Ferdinand Stone raised a sweating, exhausted face from the interior of a big cylindrical mechanism.

The mechanism seemed to the eye to be made of solid metal, but in reality was built up of captive forces which would be immune to the beam generated. So was the projector to be used with it.

“I think that finishes it,” Stone panted. “We’ll try it, anyway.”

They hooked the generator to the projector and turned on the power. Out into the black vault shot a pale little beam.

Instantly Martin turned it off. “It works!” he cried. “And with it we can destroy Ay-Artz’s entire forces at one blow!”

“Are you crazy?” Stone demanded. “We might get one or even two of his cylinders with this, but the rest would get us.”

“You don’t understand,” Martin told him. “Ay-Artz’s forces are all on Neptune, except the three guarding cylinders cruising close to Neptune.

“Suppose we run past those guards, and turn this beam on the surface of Neptune itself. What would happen then?”

Ferdinand Stone went white. “God in heaven! So that’s your idea!”

“What’s the idea?” demanded Captain Malcolm. “I can’t see that just dematerializing a part of Neptune’s surface would do any good.”

“It wouldn’t be just a part of Neptune’s surface,” Martin said. “Don’t you remember what Stone said, that when the beam strikes any atoms it touches them off into force, and their out-flash touches off the next atoms, and so on until every atom in that piece of matter explodes into force in one great flash.”

The captain’s tanned face blanched. “You mean that if you did that, all of Neptune—“

“All of Neptune would be dematerialized in one tremendous flash, yes!” shouted Martin. “And Ay-Artz and his cylinders and everything else on it would be annihilated, as they annihilated Neptune!”

Ferdinand Stone caught his arm. “Martin, it would go farther than that. The tremendous out-flash of force from Neptune and its moon would involve Pluto also, and possibly Uranus.

“Pluto and Uranus, of course, are uninhabited, and their destruction would mean nothing. But if Uranus went, Saturn also would probably go, and that would mean that nothing could save the rest of the solar system.”

“Do you understand what that means? You’re taking a chance of destroying our whole solar system in one tremendous spreading explosion, by doing this!”

“I’m willing to take that chance, rather than let Ay-Artz destroy our peoples and conquer the system!” Martin shouted in return.

“I don’t think the flash will spread beyond Uranus. But even if it does, if all our planets and the sun go, then that’s a better way to end than tamely letting ourselves be conquered and killed!”

“I say the same!” came the cry of Zinlo, the Venusian, from the visiphone.

“And I! And I! And I!” cried the Martians and Saturnians and Callistans.

“And I too,” came the voice of Steepa, the Neptunian, throbbing with hate. “But my ship shall be the ship that carries the generator and looses that dematerializing beam.”

“Your ship?” repeated Martin. “Don’t you understand that the ship that looses the beam will itself be destroyed in the tremendous out-flash of force?”

“I do realize it and that is why I demand that we do it,” the Neptunian replied. “Do you think that we few Neptunians who are left desire to outlive our race who are gone forever?”

“No, we wish to die as they have died, and to die in bringing death upon their slayers. Let us carry the beam!”

Stone plucked Martin’s sleeve. “It is his right, Martin,” he said simply.

Within a brief time, the big cylindrical generator had been transferred from the Washington to the ship of Steepa.

From the visiphone came the voice of Steepa for the last time, as his ship started toward Neptune.

“Farewell, comrades in arms! We have fought a good fight together. Now you shall see how Neptunians can die.”

The Neptunian ship was out of sight almost instantly, racing headlong toward the distant green planet.

Stone caught Martin’s arm. “We’d better retreat as far as Saturn’s orbit,” he warned. “The flash will get us out here, if Uranus goes.”

They sped back at highest speed until they reached the vicinity of the great ringed planet.

There, calling a halt in space, Alan Martin and Stone tensely watched by their visibeams the progress of the Neptunians.

Steepa’s ship had almost reached Neptune by this time. Now they had been sighted by the cruising cylinders on guard around the planet.

Martin and Stone held their breath as the cylinders darted in pursuit of the Neptunians. Then they saw an act of mad heroism.

“He’s going to make it – cut the visibeam, quick!” cried Ferdinand Stone, reaching for the switches.

The plate went blank and Stone sprang for the lead-glass goggles they had used for observation of the sun.

Even as they clapped the goggles to their eyes, the thing happened.

Out there in the black of space, the green speck of Neptune suddenly expanded into an awful explosion of blinding light that dazed their optic nerves even thru the opaque goggles.

The colossal out-flash puffed out in an oval form, the bigger end of the oval marking where Triton, Neptune’s moon, was caught by the flash and added to it.

Tremendous waves of electrical force flung the watching ships upon their beam ends, made lightning-like violet brushes spray from the metal of their interiors.

Gripping a stanchion, Alan Martin and Ferdinand Stone watched with blinded eyes that could barely see. The saw the awful puff of light expand fiercely into sudden greater size.

“Pluto’s gone!” Stone shouted. “It’s coming toward Uranus!”

The titanic explosion of released force, of hellish light, was expanding toward them, toward the green globe of Uranus and its moons.

Martin cried out in pain of tortured eyes, and Ferdinand Stone choked out a hoarse exclamation, as the terrific light-flower suddenly bloomed still greater, filling the heavens before them with a sea of raging released force.

“Uranus went there!” Stone yelled. “Saturn here will be next, and then the rest of the planets!”

“It won’t reach Saturn – it won’t!” cried Alan Martin as they clung to the side of the wildly-whirling ship.

The light-flash now completely filled the firmament before them, save only for a narrow rim at the edges of their vision. That rim narrowed further as the colossal out-flash of force reached toward ringed Saturn.

Closer and close it came, advancing with awful rapidity, its fringe seeming already almost to touch the many-mooned planet’s resplendent rings. At the very brink it paused, burning in space with its edge but a few million miles from the outermost rings.

Then, sick, blinded, struggling to stand, Alan Martin cried out and pointed.

It had reached its farthest extent, had just fallen short of touching Saturn, and now was passing as swiftly as it had appeared.

Back, back, it retreated, withering, dwindling, and then suddenly it was gone. Snapped out of existence, and there in space before the eyes of Stone and Martin was only blackness.

Pluto was gone, Neptune was gone, Uranus was gone – all gone forever. But gone forever too were Ay-Artz and his cylinders, the menace of dread invasion.

“God, it’s over,” choked Ferdinand Stone dazedly. “And I thought there it was the end, that Saturn, all the planets, the sun, would go.”

“But they didn’t, and we’ve won!” came the cry of superhuman triumph from Alan Martin’s sick, shaken body.

“We of the solar system gambled our system itself on victory. And we won! We won!”